Henry VIII and Anne BoleynEarly in the morning of 25th January 1533, the feast of the conversion of St Paul, King Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn in a secret ceremony performed by Rowland Lee, Henry VIII’s chaplain.

In attendance on the king and queen, according to Nicholas Harpsfield, the Catholic apologist writing in Mary I’s reign, were Henry Norris and Thomas Heneage, of the King’s Privy Chamber, and Anne Savage, Lady Berkeley.1 Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, reporting the marriage nearly a month after it had taken place, recorded that the couple were married “in the presence only of her father, mother, brother, and two intimate female friends of the Lady herself”.2

In his report of the marriage, Chapuys wrongly identified Thomas Cranmer, the man who would become Archbishop of Canterbury on 30th March 1533 and who would later announce the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, as the priest who performed the ceremony. There were obviously rumours flying around about this and Cranmer addresses these rumours in a letter to Nicholas Hawkins, Archdeacon of Ely, writing of how he didn’t even know about the marriage until two weeks after it had taken place:

“Notwithstanding it hath been reported throughout a great part of the realm that I married her; which was plainly false, for I myself knew not thereof a fortnight after it was done.”3

Henry VIII was of course still married to Catherine of Aragon at this point, but, according to Harpsfield, assured Rowland Lee that “he had gotten of the Pope a lycence to marry another wife”. When Lee asked to see the licence on the day of the marriage, the King said he had one “but it is reposed in another sure[r] place whereto no man resorteth but myself, which, if it were seen, should discharge us all.” Lee either had to take the King at his word or risk upsetting the King of England by challenging his word. I don’t think we can blame Lee for getting on with the ceremony!

Did Henry VIII commit bigamy by marrying Anne Boleyn while he was still married to Catherine of Aragon, after all, his first marriage hadn’t yet been annulled? The simple answer is “yes”, but Henry wouldn’t have seen it as bigamy. He had come to believe that his first marriage was invalid and that Pope Julius II had made a grave error trying to dispense of something that was against Biblical law. The Book of Leviticus stated:

“And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it [is] an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.” (Leviticus 20: 21)

And Henry had married and slept with his brother’s widow. Although the Book of Deuteronomy seemed to contradict this – “If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her.” (Deuteronomy 25: 5) – canon law gave the laws of Leviticus precedence over those of Deuteronomy and Henry VIII saw his lack of a living male heir as proof that the marriage was wrong. As I have said in a previous article, while it is easy for us today to look at Henry’s justification for the annulment of his first marriage as a great excuse to get out of it and move on with Anne Boleyn, it is clear that he was genuinely troubled by the issue and had come to believe that the marriage was wrong in God’s eyes and that it should never have taken place. David Starkey writes of how, during the seven years of Henry’s quest for an annulment, the basic premise of Henry’s case did not change and he stuck to his argument, he was convinced.4

Chronicler Edward Hall gives an earlier date for a secret marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn:

“The kyng, after his returne [from Calais] maried priuily[privily] the lady Anne Bulleyn on sainet Erkenwaldes daie, whiche mariage was kept so secrete, that very fewe knewe it, til she was greate with child, at Easter after.”5

The Feast of St Erkenwald was celebrated on 14th November and this was the day in 1532 on which Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn had landed at Dover following their visit to Calais to meet with Francis I and gain his support for their marriage plans. Hall may be the only contemporary source for this earlier wedding date, but Anne and Henry did begin co-habiting after their visit to Calais and Anne appears to have been pregnant with Elizabeth before their secret marriage ceremony on 25th January 1533. It makes sense to me that the couple entered into some kind of betrothal or marriage at this point and then consummated it, the January ceremony rubber-stamping this earlier promise. We’ll never know for sure though, but it does explain why they suddenly started sleeping together and risking pregnancy after so long.

Notes and Sources

  1. Harpsfield, Nicholas (1878) A Treatise on the Pretended Divorce between Henry VIII and Catharine of Aragon, Camden Society, p.234-235.
  2. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 4 Part 2, 1531-1533, 1053.
  3. ed. Cox, Rev. John Edmund (1844) Miscellaneous writings and letters of Thomas Cranmer, The University Press, Cambridge, p.246.
  4. Starkey, David (2003) Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, Harper Perennial, p.204.
  5. Hall, Edward (1809) Hall’s Chronicle, printed for J. Johnson; F.C. and J. Rivington; T. Payne; Wilkie and Robinson; Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme; Cadell and Davies; and J. Mawman; London. p.794.

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6 thoughts on “25 January 1533 – A St Paul’s Day wedding for Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII”
  1. Great post. However, IIRC, Scarisbrick’s biography of Henry VIII points out that, under canon law, marriages to a brother’s widow that would be valid when permitted by Deuteronomy, regardless of Leviticus. I’m curious as to what sources say that Leviticus controls. Thank you for this website, BTW —


    1. Hi Esther,

      It was Henry’s canon law advisers and council that advised him that Leviticus had precedence over Deuteronomy, with Deuteronomy being referred to as “the second law”. There were canon law scholars that didn’t agree with this view, though, and there was quite a pamphlet/treatise war. Some saw Deuteronomy as superceding Leviticus because it was later, others argued the opposite, and others pointed out that the two were not meant to be contradictory but that the laws could be followed harmoniously and that Deuteronomy was giving an exception to the Leviticus law, i.e. that the brother could marry the widow if his brother had died without issue. Although Robert Wakefield, the well-known Hebrew scholar, argued that “there was no justification in the Hebrew text for the Greek title of Deuteronomy (“Second Law”)”, he also said that this meant that it “could not be claimed that the law of levirate in Deuteronomy superseded the laws of Leviticus.” (from The Matrimonial Trials of Henry VIII, Henry Ansgar Kelly, p. 35.) There were also arguments as to what Leviticus meant with regards to whether the first marriage had been consummated or not.

      Regarding sources, there are various letters in Letters and Papers (Volume IV) about the issue and treatises about it. Here are a couple of mentions:

      February 1530 there’s a letter from Franciscus Georgius (Friar Francis George) to an unknown recipient saying:

      “I want your opinion about an important case enclosed, and desire you to obtain subscriptions or writings about it from doctors of law and theology, for which you may promise rewards, which I will provide for, either by the merchants with whom you lived here at Venice, or by any one else whom you wish. I send what I have written. Another copy of it has been subscribed by eight theologians, and I shall be very glad if any one with you will do the same. It is a controversy about inheritance between friends of mine. Would not wish to give money to those who think the Pope can dispense, but to those who think the opposite, and agree with our writings, viz., that the Levitical law remains in force, and that Deuteronomy was conditional, and is not kept either by Christians or Hebrews, as they themselves have determined in the Talmud.” LP iv. 6207

      Richard Pace to Henry VIII, July 1527:
      “Sent a letter to the King yesterday, and a book written by the counsel of Master Wakfeld. Answers the objection of some of the King’s counsel, that Leviticus is annulled by Deuteronomy. Wakfeld desires to know whether the King is willing to hear the truth in this great matter. He offers to “show unto your Highness such things as no man within your realm can attain unto or show the like, and as well for you as against you.” LP iv. 3233

      Patrick Williams, in his biography of Catherine of Aragon, states that “Leviticus and Deuteronomy therefore offered diametrically opposed teachings and it was to the former that Henry looked with anxiety and for two reasons – theologically because canon law accepted that Leviticus had precedence over Deuteronomy […], i.e. that was what Henry was being told by theologians and scholars. Amy Licence in her book “The Six Wives and Many Mistresses of Henry VIII” writes that “Henry’s council advised him that Leviticus took precedence over Deuteronomy in canon law.”

      Interestingly, Wakefield informed the king that the Leviticus text said that the punishment of such a union would be no sons, rather than chidren, so Henry felt that the lack of a living son showed clearly that the Leviticus law was correct and that his marriage was not right.

  2. You were asking if Catherine of Aragon had the right to fight for her marriage and I would say I think she did….I wouldn’t think of blaming Ann however because —for Henry—-Any pretty little thing he had a fancy for would do…..(no one knew that yet did they?) He was hell bent on having that son but I think another part of his body was more at work then his brain….

  3. Henry Viii was still married to Katherine of Aragon regardless of what he believed. The fact that he only married Anne Boleyn once he knew that she was pregnant, while he was still waiting to have his first marriage declared null and void confirms that he was still prepared to wait. Anne’s pregnancy forced him to bring the wedding forward. He might not be willing to wait for Rome any longer, but he still needed the Church to declare his marriage void in England. Henry through the appointment of Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury and his commission in April 1533 achieved this. Cranmer also had the new marriage to Anne Boleyn declared legal. Katherine of Aragon remained in law his wife as far as she was concerned, as far as Rome was concerned and the entire Catholic world, which meant as far as the majority of his own subjects were concerned. Unless Henry could assert his authority and persuade or force people to accept that this service, in secret was righteous and legal, via new laws and Parliament, Anne’s baby would never be accepted as his heir. Thus the legitimacy of Elizabeth was always in doubt, from Henry after Anne’s execution, from the leading Catholic families, from Queen Mary Tudor, from Edward vi, from Mary Queen of Scots and from the Roman Catholic powers in Europe. Henry knew that he was in the area of grey, he chose to take the chance and pushed forward regardless.

  4. I honestly never read of a possible earlier marriage to Anne. I do think it’s plausible as Henry was quite the self righteous prude. He would want no questions regarding the legitimacy of any child of Anne’s.

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